Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster would be foolish to overplay DUP's strong hand

By David Gordon

Arlene Foster must hardly be able to believe her luck. For a period of months she was unable to catch a break. It seemed any attempt to fight back on the RHI controversy was doomed to misfire.

Her "crocodiles" comment galvanised Sinn Fein voters and helped set the scene for a brutal Assembly election campaign.

Her party limped through that battle, losing seats and barely managing to remain the biggest Stormont player.

Amid intense speculation about her leadership, the DUP headed back into the talks process very much on the back foot.

But just look at it now.

Holding the balance of power in the Commons, kingmakers, strolling into Downing Street to strike a deal.

And yet, and yet.

There is always a danger in politics of overplaying your hand.

In the immortal and profound words of Kenny Rogers: 'You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table. There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.'

Every politician should remind themselves daily how quickly fortunes can rise and fall in their game.

Just two years ago David Cameron was master of all he surveyed, having defied the pollsters and pulled off a general election triumph.

Beside him, equally resplendent, stood the ultra-clever George Osborne, without doubt the Prime Minister in waiting.

Let's not forget Nicola Sturgeon, who led the SNP to a stunning victory at that same election.

Just 12 months ago, meanwhile, Theresa May became Prime Minister without even having to face a Tory leadership vote. The kingdom was hers.

And Foster was the toast of the DUP, following the party's resounding success in the 2016 Assembly poll.

The letters 'RHI' meant nothing to at least 99% of the population.

So the tide goes out and it comes back in again.

Those currents are certainly stronger and faster than ever now.

The DUP's biggest brains will presumably be well aware of the risk of pushing things too far.

The stability of Westminster and the task of restoring the Stormont Executive are both in play. It should be noted too that the room for manoeuvre in these DUP-Tory talks isn't as great as some are suggesting.

The DUP doesn't want a Jeremy Corbyn government any more than the Tories do.

So would it ever use its votes to bring down a Conservative government?

It seems highly unlikely in the short to medium-term.

The DUP is no doubt seeking some favourable financial deals for Northern Ireland.

But it can't push that too far either - May won't want to risk a backlash from austerity-hit parts of Great Britain.

She and the Tories rely on votes there, not here.

Don't be surprised if the deal includes the fine-tuning and extending of existing opportunities, arrangements and proposals.

Like a corporation tax cut, more borrowing powers for Stormont, infrastructure investment - all linked to a more general loosening of the UK public spending purse-strings, at least on capital projects.

A health service modernisation fund to bolster the Bengoa reforms could be a significant achievement.

There are also clear limits on the extent to which the DUP can expect any overt unionist "wins".

London won't want to annoy Dublin, especially with Brexit negotiations about to start.

And too much unbalancing of the delicate balance of political forces here could make a new Executive impossible.

The DUP surely won't want that.

Devolution is still the main game in the end.

The Tory government could last much longer than some pundits are suggesting.

It won't last forever.

At some point politics here will come down to Arlene and Nigel sitting across a table from Michelle and Gerry trying to hammer out a deal.

It's worth recalling that some of the DUP's biggest problems have come on the back of electoral triumphs.

The last year is a case in point.

The election win and march into power-sharing in 2007 was also followed by major turbulence - the departure of the two Paisleys and the temporary loss of a large chunk of the party's vote.

There is a tendency among some in the party to swagger and bluster when things are going their way.

They should know by now that doesn't always end well.

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